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Fast ferry in trouble? State nixes only bid

Officials say bid doesn't meet state's reguirements for ferry

Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2001

The state has rejected the only bid it received for a fast ferry.

In a letter Monday, Bob Doll, Southeast regional director for the Alaska Department of Transportation, told Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland, Wash., that its bid is "nonresponsive" to the state's specifications.

The company had proposed to build the high-speed catamaran, the first vehicle and passenger vessel of its type ever to be manufactured in the United States, for a cost of $35.99 million.

But the company attached some conditions to that price, as it turned out, said Dennis Poshard, a DOT spokesman. Those conditions are being treated as confidential information.

"This doesn't necessarily mean it's over with," Poshard said. The department could negotiate with Nichols Brothers or could reconsider other applicants that didn't make an initial cut or submit a final bid, he said. The Federal Highway Administration, which is funding the vessel, also will have to be consulted, he said.

The first of five to seven fast ferries envisioned for Southeast and Prince William Sound, the vessel is to be deployed as a Sitka-Juneau dayboat in 2003. The second fast ferry, funded but not yet under contract, is scheduled to go to Prince William Sound.

Meanwhile, Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican who is an ardent critic of the administration and the ferry system, has introduced a bill to take the ferry system away from the Department of Transportation and create a separate public authority, which he said would emphasize sound transportation planning and free the system from political whims.

Taylor questions the math in DOT's fast ferry approach. While crew costs will drop with fewer overnight voyages, the department is vastly underestimating the maintenance costs associated with a speed of 32 knots, he said.

Taylor says his communities are being "held hostage" by an inadequate transportation system. He wants to assure the preservation of winter mainline service and get continuity in planning, and he proposes several road-building projects to make ferry trips shorter.

DOT is seeking legislative permission this session to fund two more fast ferries through the dedication of future federal highway funds, which would pay off "certificates of participation" that would be sold soon. Altogether the department hopes to fund $425 million of transportation projects that way, saying it averts inflation and jump-starts projects that otherwise could be years in coming.

But Taylor says it's arrogant of the administration to propose spending the money that would be available to future legislatures.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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